Hanging Saddam "barbaric": EU official

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union condemned Saddam Hussein’s execution on Saturday, with one top official calling it a barbaric act that could create an undeserved martyr of the former Iraqi president.

Highlighting a key difference with the United States, EU president Finland and several senior European Commission officials said the 25-member bloc opposes the death penalty as a matter of principle and that Saddam should not have been hanged in Baghdad at dawn despite his crimes.

“The EU has a very consistent view against using the death penalty and it should not have been used in this instance either, although there is no doubt over Saddam’s guilt of very serious crimes against humanity,” Finland’s Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja told YLE television.

EU countries have long abandoned capital punishment and advocate a universal ban on the death penalty, while U.S. President George Bush, who as governor of Texas presided over many executions, said Saddam’s hanging was a “milestone on Iraq’s course to becoming a democracy.”

Louis Michel, a member of the EU’s executive Commission, said he believed capital punishment was at odds with the democracy Iraqi leaders were trying to build.

“You don’t fight barbarism with acts that I deem as barbaric. The death penalty is not compatible with democracy,” Michel, a former Belgian foreign minister, told Reuters.

“Unfortunately Saddam Hussein risks to appear as a martyr, and he does not deserve that. He is not a martyr, he committed the worst things,” Michel, who is EU aid commissioner, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Key figures in the EU were however careful not to appear to be pardoning Saddam or criticizing Iraqi and U.S. policy.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, in charge of external relations at the European Commission, said: “while the EU opposes capital punishment as a matter of principle, Saddam’s trial and punishment mean that those who commit crimes against humanity cannot escape justice.”

She hoped that Saddam’s death would close “a long, painful chapter in the history of Iraq.”

“I hope that all Iraqi leaders will now find the wisdom and courage to join forces to end the violence and to build a future of stability and prosperity for their country and people,” she said in a statement.

additional reporting by Sami Torma in Helsinki